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How the real MI6 recruits their agents by dispelling old misconceptions

13-Apr-2010 • Bond Style

Turn on the radio in Britain these days and you could hear an advert for a job in the shadowy world of intelligence: it's an unusual bid by the country's spy service to shed its image as stuffy, macho and upper-class - says Reuters.

Diversity is the watchword in a publicity campaign that portrays a career in the Secret Intelligence Service or MI6 as fascinating and family-friendly, albeit with moments of risk.

The drive is part of a policy of openness that constitutes a big cultural shift for a service that 20 years ago was so secret the government would not publicly acknowledge its existence, even if it still enjoys more anonymity than its close CIA ally.

"We're trying to dispel tenacious misconceptions," said the SIS recruitment officer, introducing himself as "John" in an interview at its headquarters in central London.

"A lot of people think recruitment is still by a tap on the shoulder by a talent-spotter. There's a tendency for more women to perceive us as a military-type, male organisation."

In fact, "a clear majority of the intake do not come from the military, or from Oxford or Cambridge."

The idea behind the advertising drive is to cast the recruiters' net wider than the elite fee-paying schools and universities they once relied upon, reflecting the UK's multicultural reality.

The macho image, partly the result of the popularity of the James Bond thrillers, is not reflected in the straightforward job adverts on radio stations in London and across the UK.

They follow the SIS's 2006 introduction of job adverts in newspapers and the 2005 launch of its Web site, all designed to lure applicants from a more diverse range of backgrounds.

John said recruits could look forward to generous government employee benefits and the possibility of part-time working designed to give staff the flexibility to raise their families.

"We've needed to reach parts of the population who may not have had a route into the service before," he said.

The agency website posts the impressions of recent recruits about their new employer.

"Nicola," who joined after a few years of post-university travel, says: "I am now launching myself into the world of counter-terrorism. Given its importance to the work of all the UK's Intelligence Services, I too wanted to make a contribution to tackling terrorism at home and overseas. I have already understood that the reality is different to the version we hear in the press."

White males remain the largest single recruitment group, but about eight percent of recruits are from ethnic minorities. Slightly more than a third of recruits are women, about the same proportion as applicants.

The growing proportion of women and non-white recruits is intended to give the agency a wider cultural and linguistic background, a vital asset in an agency that relies on building ties of trust across national and cultural barriers.

Improving espionage service performance has been a prime goal for the West since the September 11, 2001, attacks and the 2003 Iraq invasion, events widely seen as involving profound failures of information collection, coordination and analysis.

Interest is high. Applications for jobs as intelligence officers are running at about 10,000 a year. Recent recruits include people switching career in their 20s and 30s including doctors, lawyers, journalists, aid workers and academics.

Allegations of abuse levelled by former detainees against Western intelligence services in the campaign against terrorism since 9/11 have not deterred applications, John said.

"People seem to believe we are a sensible organisation grappling responsibly with serious global problems.

"We are not seen as a bunch of either James Bonds or torturers. We demand and get high moral standards."

The service is more up front about the risks of the job.

"In the past we perhaps spent less time than we do now pointing up potential risks about the frontline aspects of the job," said John. "We say to people that they should expect a posting in a difficult country, with potentially hostile environments at the sharp end, early on in their careers."

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